May 21, 2020

Q&A with Monique Albert: Ontario’s international leader in biobanking

The Ontario Tumour Bank’s longstanding leader appointed Secretary of International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories

The International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) today announced the appointment of Monique Albert as Secretary of the Society’s Board of Directors.

With two decades of experience in research and biobanking and three years of experience on the Society’s Board as Director-at-Large Americas, Albert has been re-elected to the Board into the executive role of Secretary.

In her new position, Albert will lead the maintenance of ISBER by-laws, policies and procedures affecting nearly 1,000 ISBER members who lead hundreds of biobanks around the world. While assuming this role, Albert will continue to serve as Director of the Ontario Tumour Bank at OICR, a position that she has held for more than seven years.

Here, she reflects on her new role and her experiences to date.

How did you become involved in preserving human specimens for research?

MA: I began working directly with human specimens as a researcher in 2001, using cutting-edge technologies to analyze human samples. It was through this experience that I realized the utmost importance of preserving and maintaining the quality of these specimens to generate the most reproducible data. Good biological science is built on good data, which can only come from well-preserved samples.

When I recognized the importance of these invaluable samples, I began developing initiatives to improve biobanking practices at my local research institute. I’ve been building on those initiatives ever since.

Quality is an important aspect of your work. How do you make quality maintenance sustainable?

MA: While sample quality is a key element of a biobank’s success, it is not the only one that matters. To be successful, a biobank needs to meet current and future research needs, comply with standards and regulations, and operate in a sustainable way for future generations. I’m fortunate to have a background in project management and business planning that helps balance these three elements with limited resources.

As biobanking has become more mainstream, I’m proud that Ontario has consistently been at the forefront of biobanking standards. I’ve had the privilege of sharing my work with the growing international biobanking community through presenting at conferences and publishing on several occasions.

What are you looking forward to in your new role as Secretary?

MA: Having plenty of experience with ISBER – and ISBER’s savvy, inclusive and collaborative members – I know we are making an incredible impact on research. I’m honoured to be elected to this role and to continue to volunteer my time for the continued growth of ISBER. My previous experience at ISBER will allow me to hit the ground running and keep the momentum on existing goals and initiatives with the best interests of the Society and its members at heart.

Read more about ISBER’s 2020 Election Results or more on Monique Albert’s active role within ISBER on OICR News.  

March 24, 2020

The donations behind the discoveries: The Ontarians who made the Pan-Cancer Project possible

A technician at an Ontario Tumour Bank site at Kingston General Hospital works with frozen specimens.

The Pan-Cancer project made international headlines this month, but not without the contributions of thousands of individuals and the teams that preserve their specimens

In an unprecedented, decade-long study of whole cancer genomes, OICR researchers and collaborators have improved our fundamental understanding of the disease, indicating new directions for developing diagnostics and treatments. The Project was powered by 2,800 people with cancer who donated their biologic specimens to research. These contributions were facilitated and protected by groups such as the Ontario Tumour Bank (OTB).

From the operating room to the freezer

Many advances in cancer research, like those made by the Pan-Cancer Project, rely on hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of biospecimens. A patient’s donated blood, tumour and surrounding tissue may hold clues to future innovations in cancer diagnostics and therapies. But without biobanks – the repositories that collect and care for biological samples – the clues within these donations may never be discovered.

“Good science is built on good data and good omics data can only be drawn from well-preserved tissues,” says Monique Albert. “The advancements made by the Pan-Cancer Project would not have been possible without the diligent work of biobanking teams.”

Albert is the Director of OTB – a provincial bioresource operating in partnership with four state-of-the-art hospitals and cancer centres across Ontario. OTB plays a quiet but crucial role between the patient and the researcher, providing the fundamental biologic resources that research is built on.

Lowering the temperature and raising the bar

Day-to-day, biobanking teams – like OTB – work to implement the highest standards of preservation. From the operating room to the freezer and back to the lab, these teams tirelessly strive to maintain the quality of patient samples to inform cancer discoveries. OTB has held and raised leading biobanking standards for over 15 years.

“When The Cancer Genome Atlas started, biobanks around the world promised thousands of samples, but only a fraction of these samples were adequate for research,” says Albert, referring to Libraries of Flesh: The Sorry State of Human Tissue Storage. “This served as a wake-up call for the sector to unite, share best practices and set higher standards together.”

At the launch of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) in the early 2000s, OTB was up to – and in many ways exceeded – existing biobanking standards. This was thanks to the foresight of Dr. Brent Zanke and Sugy Kodeeswaran, who recognized the importance of stringent biobanking practices nearly a decade before biobanking became popularized.

As the only Canadian repository that was able to contribute to TCGA, OTB allowed hundreds of people from Ontario to contribute to this international initiative and to subsequent studies like the Pan-Cancer Project.

Since its inception, OTB has collected more than 185,000 samples donated by more than 21,000 individuals from across Ontario, enabling these donations to have a greater impact today and for years to come.

“Each sample represents a trace of an individual’s life, and we’re honoured to care for these valuable donations to science,” says Albert. “When they’re preserved properly, they become a lasting resource with infinite value. We’re proud that the donations from Ontario patients are paving the way for better and more targeted cancer treatment.”

OTB plays a critical role in leading the development of Canadian biobanking standards through the Canadian Tissue Repository Network (CTRNet), and biobanking standards around the world through the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER).

Read more about OTB’s research resources and how OTB is collaborating to improve biobanking around the world by visiting their website at ontariotumourbank.ca.

April 23, 2019

Tumour samples and ultra-low temperatures

Learn about how the Ontario Tumour Bank evaluates the quality of tumour samples stored at ultra-low temperatures over the last decade.

April 9, 2019

Learn about the Ontario Tumour Bank

Monique Albert, Director of the Ontario Tumour Bank (OTB) explains how OTB provides cancer researchers with the high-quality biospecimens and data they need for their studies.

March 26, 2019

Deep freezing allows researchers to dig deep into tumour samples

The Ontario Tumour Bank evaluates the quality of tumour samples stored at ultra-low temperatures over the last decade

Before they are used in cancer research, tumour samples are often preserved in storage at extremely low temperatures, sometimes for several years. It is thought that these temperatures can stop all biological activity in samples and thus prevent DNA, RNA and other analytes from degrading, but this technique has never been tested for extended long-term preservation – or storage beyond a few years. Researchers at the Ontario Tumour Bank (OTB) recognized this concern and looked back over a decade of specimens to find out more.

In their recent study published in Biopreservation and Biobanking, they investigated how the quality of a sample may change over the course of 10 years in vapour-phase liquid nitrogen storage, also known as LN2 storage. They found evidence to show that LN2 storage preserves the quality of genetic material in tumour samples over several years and no connection between the age of a sample and its integrity – or how intact its genetic material is.

“Our unique study has provided us, and the greater research community, with reassuring results,” says Rachel Kelly, Research Technician at OTB and lead author of the study. “While the biobanking community generally accepts that samples stored at ultra-low temperatures are stable indefinitely, we were concerned that this assumption had not been thoroughly tested.”

Kelly’s findings apply to the hundreds of biobanks around the world that store samples at cryogenic temperatures, or temperatures below -150⁰C. This study validates that researchers will be able to analyze and investigate well-preserved tissues, whether they are two years old or 10 years old.

“For the thousands of patients who have donated their samples, they should know that their contribution may impact cancer research for years to come,” says Monique Albert, Director of OTB. “At OTB, we have the privilege of diligently preserving this resource and helping translate valuable patient samples into new research discoveries.”

OTB, which stores more than 185,000 samples donated by over 20,000 patients across Ontario, is one of six founding Charter Member Banks of the Canadian Tissue Repository Network (CTRNet). Through CTRNet, these six top-tier biobanks work to enhance the capacity and quality of biobanking across Canada. Read more about how OTB is collaborating to improve biobanking around the world, or visit their website at ontariotumourbank.ca.

September 6, 2017

Ontario Tumour Bank collaborating to improve biobanking globally

Monique Albert

Biorepositories (or biobanks) play an important role in many types of research. But biobanking is a complex process requiring careful management of a whole range of scientific, legal, technical and ethical issues. We spoke to Monique Albert, Director of the Ontario Tumour Bank, about the importance of good biobanks, how the Ontario Tumour Bank is working with international partners to improve biobanking globally and why this type of international collaboration is benefitting researchers in Ontario.

Continue reading – Ontario Tumour Bank collaborating to improve biobanking globally

May 3, 2017

Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients

A technician holds a blood sample and writes down information.

The advent of genomic sequencing and targeted therapies has opened the door to new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer. The Ontario-wide Cancer Targeted Nucleic Acid Evaluation (OCTANE) program is a new, province-wide initiative supported by OICR that will allow more patients to benefit from these innovations while also helping to advance cancer research in Ontario.

Continue reading – Study bringing more precision medicine to Ontario’s cancer patients